Reaching Out To Those In Need
Numerous translators of the Bible understand differently the specifics of the command to strengthen those that are falling low, but all agree on the importance of its fulfillment.
The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
The Torah portion B'har has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and ethical balances to free-market dangers. The Sabbath of the Land, called shemitah, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a "Jubilee" year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders.
Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God's laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him--sojourner or resident--and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
If you see someone falling into poverty or getting into trouble, you must help him, even to the extent of taking him into your home. The commandment starts with the terminology of "your brother," (i.e., a fellow Israelite, or perhaps someone from your tribe or clan) but in the end seems to imply that we must help any person in trouble, Jew or non-Jew.
Terse and idiomatic, it's not clear from our verse what situation the Torah is addressing: is this a case of indebtedness, as would seem logical from the surrounding verses? If so, is it specifically directed at the creditors, exhorting them to be judicious and merciful with their financial power? Or is it a more general commandment to the Israelites, encompassing any kind of trouble or "falling low" that might happen to a person?
Let's begin by comparing several translations and seeing how the translation itself is an interpretation:
Jewish Publication Society: "If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side. . . . "
Reading this, one would think that the verse is directed to creditors; they must not treat "kinsmen" as if they were non-Jews by evicting them or seizing their property, because "one who mortgaged his land or sold it to another became, in a real sense, a tenant on his own land." Alternatively, one must not turn a "kinsman" into a "resident alien" by evicting him; one must be compassionate and find a way to keep the poor "by your side" and in the community.
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